The mythology of cake

When I was grow­ing up, tea after school was my favour­ite meal. It’s hard to relay the awful­ness of school din­ners in those days and by teatime I was raven­ously hungry. On the bus jour­ney home and the long walk from the bus stop, I fan­tas­ised about what there might be to eat.

My great aunt made my tea each day and the best days involved cake. There was a par­tic­u­lar cake she bought from the frozen food sec­tion at the super­mar­ket — vanilla sponge with whipped cream. When she was short of time, the sponge would still be icily sol­id and the whipped cream coldly leath­ery in tex­ture. Bit­ing down through a frozen slice I would muffle my teeth with my lips to shield them from the nerve-jangling cold.

I have a hazy memory of a short story in which a smart host­ess expresses dis­dain that an already-cut cake might be served at teatime. In her opin­ion cake had to be a com­plete, uncut circle of deli­ciously airy sponge. Once a wedge had been removed it lost its magic­al prop­er­ties. I don’t believe in such a tyr­an­nic­al approach to sponge but I do believe in the myth­o­logy of cake. It’s a euphem­ism for home, gen­er­os­ity and cel­eb­ra­tion.

Chestnut and Roasted Hazelnut Sponge With Whipped Cream and Rose Geranium Jelly

150g whole hazel­nuts

180g softened but­ter

180g caster sug­ar

Half tea­spoon pure vanilla extract

4 eggs

125g self rais­ing flour

125g chest­nut flour — it has a beau­ti­fully sweet, slightly smoky fla­vour, but a short shelf life. If you can’t find it, simply double the amount of self rais­ing flour and omit the bak­ing powder

1 tea­spoon bak­ing powder

300ml whip­ping cream

Enough rose gerani­um jelly to spread thinly over the sponge. If you can’t get hold of rose gerani­um jelly, you could try a thin lay­er of chocol­ate filling per­haps, or leave it out alto­geth­er and rely on the cream

Pre­heat the oven to 170 degrees C.

Line two 18cm cake tins with buttered bak­ing parch­ment.

Toast the hazel­nuts in a dry fry­ing pan for five minutes or so, until they turn slightly golden in col­our. Once cool enough to handle, rub them between your hands to flake off most of the powdery skins. Tip the nuts into a food pro­cessor and pulse them into a crumbly-tex­tured gravel.

Beat the but­ter and sug­ar togeth­er until light and creamy. Mix in the vanilla extract and then add the eggs one at a time. Tip in the ground nuts.

Sift the two flours and bak­ing powder togeth­er into the bowl and mix until com­bined. Divide the mix­ture between the two tins and bake in the oven for around 25 minutes until car­a­mel brown on top. While they’re bak­ing, whip the cream until it forms peaks.

Once the cake is cooked, cool it for five minutes and then remove from the tins. Once cold, spread one half with jelly, the oth­er with cream, and sand­wich togeth­er.

This cake won’t keep long because of the whipped cream filling. Much like the posh host­ess who gasped at the idea of hanging on to an already-cut cake, I had to get rid of my sponge quickly. I asked my very clev­er friend who lives a few doors along from me if she’d like a slice. Ever resource­ful, she sug­ges­ted to one of her Bed and Break­fast guests that he knock on my front door. Newly arrived from Vienna he was bemused to be sent to a strange house to ask for cake. But he seemed rather touched to be presen­ted with a paper-wrapped bundle of sponge, so I will mark that down as fur­ther proof of the glor­i­ous prop­er­ties of cake. Who knows, he may go back to Vienna report­ing that it’s an ancient Eng­lish cus­tom to wel­come strangers with sponge. And that really wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

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